Football: The purist's fear of the penalty

Michael Gray is in good company when it comes to bad experiences. Roberto Baggio also missed while the world was watching
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The Independent Online
Simon Turnbull

probes the torment of

shoot-out victims from

World Cups to Wembley

CAROLE SEHEULT made a cameo appearance in Premier Passions. She was the expert the Sunderland directors consulted when deciding which colour schemes should be used inside the home and away team dressing-rooms at the Stadium of Light. As a sports psychologist, she could be of invaluable assistance to the Wearside club once again. After the penalty miss that cost Sunderland promotion to the Premiership at Wembley last Monday, some therapeutic work may be required inside the mind of poor Michael Gray.

For six days now he will have been tormented by the recurring image of his laboured left-foot shot trundling tamely towards Sasa Ilic. In that one nightmare moment, as the weight of his home city collapsed on his shoulders, Gray joined the unfortunate band of penalty shoot-out victims who have fired costly blanks: Chris Waddle, Stuart Pearce, Gareth Southgate and Roberto Baggio among them. How he is coping is hard to say. From the moment he clasped his head in his hands, he has kept his thoughts to himself. "I should think he needs to get off on his own somewhere," Seheult said, "and sort of kick something... preferably not animate. Different people have different ways of dealing with a disappointment like that. But he will go through all the stages: disbelief at first, then anger - anger with himself and with the fact that he had to take that kick - and then depression. Gradually he'll come round. He will bounce back again.

"He has to be philosophical about it because, no matter what he thinks, it happened and there's no way he can turn back the clock. He's a good player. He has to think about that. He can't let himself think about the significance of the kick. If he does he'll be overwhelmed by the enormity of what happened."

That is sure to be the hard part for Gray. Sunderland born and bred, he will appreciate the extent of the heartbreak his failed penalty has caused. Not that the finger of accountability has been pointed towards the Gray door on Wearside in the aftermath of Sunderland's cruel defeat in the First Division play-off epic - 4-4 after extra-time but 7-6 to Charlton in the tie-breaker. Far from it, in fact.

The switchboard at the Stadium of Light has been jammed by supporters asking for well-wishing messages to be passed on to Gray. And Peter Reid, despite his own acute disappointment, has been admirably supportive of his young left-back. "We did not lose promotion just with that one kick," the Sunderland manager said. "We had a bad start to the season and we had a terrible 15 minutes which cost us two points against QPR on Good Friday. I really do feel for Michael because he's had such a good season. For me, he's been the best left-back in the country. I'm certain he'll bounce back."

At 23, Gray has already recovered from one serious setback in his football life. He has established himself at Sunderland after being discarded as a trainee by Manchester United. And he does not have to look too far for a guiding light in his latest dark hour. Up the road at Newcastle, Pearce is still going strong at 36 - eight years after his failure to beat Bodo Ilgner in the World Cup semi-final shoot-out between England and West Germany.

"I was inconsolable at the time," Pearce reflected, "but the experience made me a better player. I knew it was something I would have to live with. I was prepared for the fans taunting me when Forest played away the following season. I was either going to crumble or become stronger mentally and I played the best football of my career the next season. It's how you react to the bad times that shapes your character."

How Pearce reacted when he watched the West End premiere of An Evening With Gary Lineker showed that the bad time he endured in the Stadio delle Alpi had shaped his character for the better. Chris England's play centres on that night in Turin and includes a fantasy sequence in which Pearce fires his penalty past Ilgner. The moment the ball hit the centre-stage net Pearce leapt to his feet and yelled: "Yeeeess!" He brought the house down.

He did so again at Wembley in Euro 96 with the penalty conversion against Spain that truly exorcised the ghost of Turin. But four days later Southgate's semi-final miss against Germany added a third man to England's off-target shoot-out club. It earned the Aston Villan a Pizza Hut television commercial with Pearce and Waddle but the financial slice was small consolation for all three. "I'll probably never be allowed to forget my miss in Turin," Waddle said. "A few months after the game, when I was back playing for Marseille, Franz Beckenbauer took over as coach. The first thing he said when he saw me was, 'My favourite player'."

Beckenbauer, of course, had been West Germany's coach in Italia 90. And he prepared his players for the possibility of penalties with typical Teutonic efficiency. "As soon as we qualified for the knock-out stages we practised penalties every day," he recalled. "That is probably why we were so confident." Given that practice makes perfect, it may be no coincidence that Germany boast the World Cup's best penalty shoot-out record. They won the first decider in the competition, 5-4 against France in the 1982 semi-finals, and have yet to fail after three tests of nerve on the biggest football stage of all.

It is the Brazilians, however, who have claimed the biggest prize from the penalty-taking lottery. They did so, appropriately enough, by luck as much as skill. It was their good fortune that Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio were carrying legs that were badly injured as well as tired at the end of the goalless 1994 World Cup final in the Pasadena Rose Bowl. Baresi blazed the first kick over the bar and Baggio followed a similarly wayward trajectory with the last. "Roberto's legs were so battered he was virtually limping," Baresi, Italy's captain four years ago, reflected. "He had played so well in the tournament. He had scored five goals and was responsible for getting us to the final. But I could feel his exhaustion. I can still see him: kicking the ball high over the bar and sinking to his knees, head in his hands."

And those of us who witnessed the final twist of the First Division play- off plot last week will long keep the image of Michael Gray in a similar distraught state. It will be of no comfort to him that the golden goal rule will be implemented in the World Cup in France. Had it applied at Wembley last Monday, Nicky Summerbee would have won the game and the prize ticket to the Premiership - with the 95th-minute goal that was crafted by Sunderland's unfortunate shoot-out victim.

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